On this day, eight years ago, my mother passed away after a relatively short yet noble, fully clear-headed and utterly valiant battle with pancreatic cancer.
The eldest daughter of immigrants from Country Cork, Ireland, a PhD in biochemistry in an age when women in the sciences were exceedingly rare, a devout daughter of the Catholic Church who reinvested the values of that generation of that demographic back into the passionate schooling of other young women at an all-girls Catholic high school, a mother of nine children who all graduated from university, she was, in all things and all ways, pure unalloyed naturally self-manifesting otherworldly simplicity, unadorned by the slightest conceivable mark of artifice or fashion, conservative in a way that was soft and yet principled from reason yet unrigid and even also persuadable through sound reason (as long as that reason did not defy flagrantly the tenets of the Faith, which was fair enough), humble to an almost pathic degree, and a true and living saint of balance, impishness, and timeless casual wisdom about whom my boyhood friends would sometimes snicker, “Dude, your Mom”s not normal. She’s like Yoda!”
The day before her funeral, on this day in 2013, a massive blizzard pummelled the entire NY Tristate metropolitan area. Despite this, we were able to assemble to her rural church near the NJ/Pennsylvania border a bagpiper from deep in Pennsylvania and family and friends from several states in New England.
But here’s a really cool part of the story that day: A crew of Zen gangster-monk brothers packed a minivan and drove down through the blizzard, down from the Korean temple in Tappan, NY to the edge of Pennsylvania. They were told — as I’d been firmly instructed by the presiding parish priest — that no non-Catholic songs or rituals would be permitted in this consecrated Catholic cemetery. The “verboten” included even the singing of “Danny Boy,” which nearly every Irish asks for but which my mother — ever a fierce and loyal soldier of the Church! — had anyway pre-emptively asked us please not to request on her behalf. So, we would keep things doctrinally pure, for her sake.
The internment ceremony at graveside was concluded. The lowering of the casket happened, and flowers were dropped into the grave by the large group of assembled guests. The three priests and two altar boys scurried back through the crunching snow to their rectory. It seemed like all things had been concluded, ceremonially.
Several moments after the casket was lowered into the ground, out of view forever, the unmistakeable sound of the Korean wooden temple moktak sounded out across the baleful rows of snow-covered headstones. A shock ran through me. I turned to see that the crew of shaven-headed bodhisattva-gangsters were with hands in prayer position, deeply serious. The classical Sino-Korean “Heart Sutra” was being offered at her gravesite by these guys, with great intensity. Assembled guests gazed at each other, shocked. It was the first time in several tense days of family life among grieving siblings that I’d nearly burst out laughing.
Few would understand this natural release but those who have looked deeply inside for long. The eternal truth of the Heart Sutra’s “Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form”, as your mother’s decaying mortal remains — your own birthing-sheath — are lowered out of sight forever, in a cemetary-sea of melting snow, with a varied group of Western and Eastern humans Christian, Buddhist, and agnostic dispersing into the sunny-chill of a Saturday afternoon turning already toward evening — the truth of that joyous laughter welling up out of the chest felt so incongruous, so flagrantly impolite, yet so incredibly right. Yet in the inner heart of the chanting, the vibration in the throat, the cold on the cheeks, the crunch of snow underfoot, the rising and falling of the chest, the clarity of the pristine, cloudless sky — the closing teaching of that sutra also became clear: “Form is just form; emptiness is just emptiness.”
The sky is blue. The snow is white.
How much a blessing it was to learn that the monks and nuns of Mu Sang Sah Temple in Korea — including Zen Master Dae Bong himself, and the late Dae Jin (Mu Shim) Sunim — conducted the traditional 49-day Memorial Ceremonies and one-year memorial ceremonies in the Main Buddha Hall of Mu Sang Sah for my mother.